Tuesday, April 21, 2009
T.G.I.T. (It's Not What You Think)
I know what you’re thinking: it’s been raining for days and Niambi must be sun-deprived. Why else would she give thanks for Tuesday? But my TGIT has nothing to do with days of the week, and everything to do with what I became for 35 hours between Feb. 7 and March 30th, 2009.
I became a Tour Guide in Training. I took the class for three reasons: (1) I love the District of Columbia. (2) I am passionate about history, with our history being my first love. (3) Last May I was privileged to take a walking tour of Savannah led by Vaughnette Goode-Walker. After her riveting immersion in the history of that beautiful city, I wanted to be just like Sister V.
What it Isn’t/What it Is
On February 7 I quickly learned what a successful tour guide is not. My mere recitation of facts and figures didn’t quite cut it. “Put down the script and talk from your heart,” one classmate advised. By the next session I learned what separates the wheat from the chaff in the guiding world. It’s storytelling, plain and simple. Enhance the facts with stories and personal reflections, and a captive audience is guaranteed.
In Lincoln Park at the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, I talked about my mother, then a student at Virginia State, who met Mrs. Bethune when she visited the campus. Across the park from the great lady is Lincoln in bronze, depicted as freeing a slave. A fellow classmate told this story: Instead of a fictional image plucked from the imagination of the sculptor, the model for the slave was Alexander Archer, the last slave captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. The idea for the statue of Lincoln came not from the Federal Government, but from Charlotte Scott, a freed slave whose donation of $5.00 was the beginning of the funding, all from freed slaves. At its dedication, Frederick Douglass was pressed into an impromptu speech. He did not mince words in his description of Lincoln. “He was preeminently the white man’s President entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.” The speech became kinder and gentler, or in the jargon of today “fair and balanced”, but Douglass was definitely not there to sing Kumbayah.
At the Capitol, I shared the story of the enslaved Phillip Reid’s role in the placement of the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol Dome. In spite of a temperamental Italian sculptor, Reid took care of business, a inspiring case of brain over brawn. At the small jewel that is the Anacostia Community Museum, it was like sorting through my mother’s collection of memorabilia and historical documents. The life-sized Pinkster King (see picture) greets visitors at the entrance to Jubilee, an exhibit on African-American celebrations. Among the collection, in all its glory, stands the beautiful red costume of a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian.
We learned to be prepared. Wearing an armload of silver at the Capitol Visitor’s Center is a tortuous no-no, especially when one of those bangles is a tightly-clasped lover’s knot. (Ask me how I know). No guide wants a lost tourist starring in their own unauthorized version of “Night at the Museum.” Or stranded over in Anacostia at the Frederick Douglass home.
When it comes to research, for me there is no such thing as too much information. In the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, someone will want to know why there is no walkway over the head of Hawaii’s King Kamehameha. Or why the statue of Sacajewa is facing west. Kids love the stomach-shaped hairball and other “fluid preserved gross anatomical and pathological specimens” at Walter Reed’s National Museum of Health and Medicine, but many grown-ups gag. I went nowhere near the gore. Side note: “Trauma Bay II: Balad, Iraq” is a life-sized look into the work of combat medics, many of it in pictures and their own words and voices. Take plenty of tissues.
On March 30, at what used to be Abingdon Plantation and is now part of Reagan National Airport, we received our certificates, and a DVD of ourselves at work. We took one last class picture and shared a celebratory drink.
When I got back home, my spam mail was full. “Virginity test cancelled,” one shouted in all caps. What good news! I would have had to put it on the back burner anyway. (lol) I’ve got the DC Tour Guide test coming up. And when I pass, I hope to see you on the streets. I’ve got some stories to tell. Until then, here’s a preview: click on the slideshow below and enjoy!